Brent Calderwood’s debut collection, The God of Longing, follows a recurring speaker through a bruising childhood into his adulthood of ever-diminishing idealism. Calderwood’s poems, varied in their use of form, both narrative and lyric, display a deep anxiety about the transience and impermanence of the world around him—the fluidity of individual identity, the life-span of relationships, and the more tectonic shifts within a culture’s dominant ideology.
Anxiety, guilt, and an obsessive drive for order manifest in a compulsion toward rituals both formal and psychological. Early in the collection, Calderwood’s young speaker wraps his toys in clean white t-shirts, stuffs his pants with socks “to approximate virility,” and spends his nights alternatingly “pushing the thing down,” or “moving through the dictionary/ pairing every letter/ with every other letter”. In each case, the speaker searches for order in chaos and a way to define his identity within it: “The boys bodies are unruly. / Mine is all rules.”
As our speaker matures, the fundamental anxiety within him is redirected towards his relationships. Instead of approximating virility, he now has “a bad habit of apologizing for accidents. / Ejaculating almost feels this way . . . // Here, I say, wiping it quickly, as if the stuff had the power to kill.” Through this redirection, the totalizing effect of Calderwood’s obsessive intentionality becomes clear; he has curated this collection as one might catalogue or itemize belongings. Dominated by insecurity and his dissatisfaction with what he perceives as an increasingly superficial culture, the speaker doggedly examines his vertiginous longing for, and resistance to, “normalcy” in its heteronormative form. “Evolution,” for instance, is fittingly self-lacerating and resigned at once:
I am a dilettante: to connect
without connection is the art.
I think even after we evolve
I’ll prefer to stay home with the cats.
Longing and the attendant threat of loss are persistent. Contemplating an elderly gay couple’s long-standing relationship, our speaker looks to a bird’s nest on his fire escape: “Pigeons just lay a few twigs / down to keep their eggs from rolling away.” In this fleeting observation, Calderwood finds a means of expressing his frustration—and fear—that (for the speaker, at least) satisfaction in traditional domesticity is untenable.
Throughout, Calderwood uses the lens of the personal and domestic to examine the politicized homosexual culture of relationships, promiscuity, disease, and vanity. The collection’s closing poem, a villanelle entitled “Headless Men,” laments: “I wish we’d take to the streets again / and fight for love or against disease. / We had faces. / Now we’re all headless men.” We are invited—or rather directed—to consider how complacency begets superficiality, and how superficiality undermines progress.